Zimrat haAretz (“Songs of the Earth”)
Cantor Shoshana Brown
Reflection on Psalm 10, Verses 17, 18 and 16
(Note: I am translating the verses here as I sing them in the accompanying music video; they are out of
order because that seemed to be the best way to sing them!)
AYou listen, you listen to the longing of the humble, O Lord;
You make firm, you make firm their hearts.
You bend Your ear to do right by the orphan and the downcast [O Lord].
No more-no more shall that man make us afraid [to walk on] the earth.*
Adonai Melekh olam va ed!
[Adonai is sovereign for ever and ever!]
*The meaning of this Hebrew phrase is quite uncertain. I have taken liberties with it, as I will discuss below.
Psalm 10 encompasses 17 verses in all. Though I sing only three of them (in the accompanying video); really, the whole
psalm is remarkable in that much of it does not fall in line with our conventional idea of a “song of praise.” At its opening,
the Psalmist confronts God:
Why, Adonai, do You stand afar off, heedless in times of trouble? (v.1)
And the psalm continues, describing the arrogance of the wicked man whom God has seemingly allowed to prosper; he lies
in wait for the innocent, thinking that there is no God who will call him to account:
He says to himself, “God is not mindful; He hides his face, He never sees.” (v.11)
At this the Psalmist both invokes and challenges God, crying:
Rise, Adonai! O God, lift up Your hand-do not forget the lowly! (v.12)
It seems to me a healthy thing to be willing to confront God-as our greatest heroes, Avraham Avinu (Abraham our Father)
and Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our Teacher) so famously did. In fact, the tradition of confronting or arguing with God (or
wrestling God, as in the case of Jacob) could almost be said to be a badge of one’s closeness with God. Only one truly
beloved and intimate with a powerful ruler would be allowed to speak so boldly. And only one who still believes in God’s
love of justice would bother to do so: why complain to God if you believe there is no God; why call on God to arise if God’s
reign is just a fairy tale? The speaker believes, but the “facts on the ground” seem to contradict the God s/he believes in.
Thus the Psalmist goes on to reassure him/herself:
You do see!...You have ever been the help of the orphan…(v.14).
And yet, s/he still must call on God to live up to the role of ”defender of the fatherless and destroyer of the wicked:”
O break the arm of the wicked, and of the evil…! (v.15)
For all these reasons, Psalm 10 seems a most honest expression of faith. And yet its words are not easy to cast in the form
of a song, for we are conditioned to think that words of thanks and praise are the only kinds of words that are “appropriate”
when we sing or pray to God. How shall we influence God to come to our aid if we express our anxiety, our doubts, our
disappointment with this same God?
And yet, if this God is real, does God not already know what is on our minds? So shall we not tell the truth when we pray?
In truth, I found this psalm a hard one to “sing” until I imagined that this was the song of one of the “lowly” that the psalm
makes mention of. Given that my own roots are in the American South, it was easy for me to imagine the final verses of this
psalm as being sung by an African-American woman, either during the time of slavery, or in its aftermath, before the advent
of civil rights legislation. The obscure Hebrew phrase at the end of verse 18, la-arotz enosh min ha-aretz I took some
liberties with. I have interpreted enosh, which is usually translated as “humankind,” to refer to “the man,” (or in my song,
“that man”)-meaning the white man and the society which he dominates and keeps under his thumb, so much so that a
poor woman of color might fear to walk out in the countryside alone. The Jewish Publication Society Tanakh translates this
phrase, la-arotz enosh min ha-aretz, as “men who are of the earth” (their translation of the whole line is: that men who are
of the earth tyrannize no more.) But I found the idea of making someone afraid of the earth-that is, making them afraid to
be alone out in nature, or in the countryside, to be all too true of the history of race relations in the Jim Crow South. An
unprotected woman of color could be waylaid and raped by a white man with little consequence to him; a lone black man
lynched. And it should not have been this way! These people whose ancestors had lived so close to the land in their native
Africa, and who worked so hard on the land as plantation slaves…the land, or, as I have rendered it, the earth, should be a
being upon whose bosom we feel at peace, a place where we should be able to walk freely…and yet for too long this was
not so on our American soil. And yet, despite over 200 years of slavery and oppression, the African-American people kept
up their hopes, their spirits, their dignity, by singing words of trust to God; they kept believing, despite all their sufferings,
that God was the ultimate Judge and Ruler of the earth and of all humankind, and that God would see their plight, siding
with them as God had sided with the oppressed in Egypt.
Was it this deep faith in the face of so much evil that gave African Americans the ability to sing some of the most powerful
songs that our country has ever heard? Or was it rather, the singing in the face of evil that gave the singers the power to
keep believing, gave them the hope that one day, one day, they would be able to walk out, anywhere, unafraid?
Psalms do not always “lift us up” in a joyful way. It is also vital to be able to voice our anger, our fear, our anxieties and
sorrow before God - for as long as we are singing, there is still connection, there is still hope.